Dear appreciator of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, reader of the mainstream graphic novels, and doe-eyed novice to the full breadth of where comic books can truly go - I write this review for you. The hardcore comic fan doesn’t need to read another review for Saga - if online consensus is anything to go by, they love it enough already. The complete graphic novel un-enthusiast meanwhile will see nothing in Saga to change their mindset - it is, frankly, often too surreal, and often too adult, for them to be comfortable with. But you - you’re different. You’ve seen all of the ‘big’ movies, most certainly read the likes of The Watchmen and The Killing Joke, and you may just be curious as to how far the world of comics can go beyond these initial climes. Are you interested in dipping your toe a bit deeper? Do you like the idea of a sprawling space opera complete with its own fair share of enchanted fantasy elements? Do you like the idea of such a story getting told in switchabout fashion by a horde of unique characters whose races, motives and sexualities define the very meaning of diverse? Do you like the idea - or are at least comfortable with - a TV-headed, 19th-century military regalia-dressing android being the main antagonist to all the proceedings? If so, then you might like to delve into Image Comics’ Saga, an unapologetically grown-up, lavishly creative adventure whose first hardcover volume hints at its massive potential - although if you’re anything like me, you might conclude its reading hoping that the next one will provide the deeper sense of detail this wannabe epic most definitely needs.
Saga Book One compiles issues 1 to 18 of this tale so far - a tale penned by Brian K. Vaughan (X-Men, Y: The Last Man, plus TV episodes for Lost) that largely revolves around love, familial struggles and a whole lot of bloodshed on the stage of an interstellar war. It’s a tale also told in part by Hazel, one of Saga’s many characters, a girl of unknown age who provides backing narration as she posthumously recollects on the two individuals central to the struggle in these early chapters - her parents. Even if Hazel’s story largely relates to the two individuals who have produced her, Saga’s stage is definitely built for a staggeringly grand scale. To give an example indicator, the full chronicling of Saga’s first hardcover volume comes to a whopping 504 pages. In the time it takes to get to the end of them, Hazel has gone from her own moment of birth, to barely taking her first toddler steps. With the additional cast promptly multiplying into the double digits in the meantime, it’s obvious that Saga is building its story on a remarkably grand level. That’s fine as long as you can pull it off, and Vaughan definitely has the pedigree to do it - but it does already feel like this series is going to need plot resolution of George R. R. Martin proportions in order to reach its end in clean fashion.
Hazel is also the reason why Saga’s widely-woven plot trails are thrown into motion. She is the child of the series’ two main characters, Alana and Marko, and the advent of her birth would surely have been met with welcome joy and celebration, if not for one major problem. Alana and Marko are supposed to be on two opposing sides in a bitter interplanetary conflict - a war that pits the winged, highly advanced human race of the Landfall Coalition (so named after its capital planet) against the horned, magic-wielding, equally human race of Wreath, a moon that orbits Landfall. With both planets dependent on the other not being destroyed so that they don’t fall out of orbit themselves, the two warring factions use a workaround - they deploy their armies to different planets within their domain, and have their battles there. It is on one of these planets, Cleave, that the pair first meet - Alana fulfilling her duty as a Coalition army grunt, and Marko being a prisoner-of-war that she’s given orders to guard.
It should be noted that this universe makes no qualms about how bitterly hateful these two opposing sides are for one another. The possibility for romantic relations across this divide is considered incredulous, let alone repulsive. And that’s exactly why, within twelve hours of their first meeting, Alana and Marko become completely besotted with one another, and promptly make plans to escape / elope from Cleave, racially-charged war be damned.
This naturally creates a lot of bother - specifically for themselves as not long into their on-the-run relationship, Alana discovers she’s carrying Marko’s child. The circumstance of a Landfall-Wreath love affair, in the face of so much fighting continuing to rage on so many planets, is anathemic enough of a betrayal in the eyes of the command of both sides. When that affair comes with the rumour of a baby in the mix, it then obtains the potential to be devastating for the morale of the both forces’ soldiers, if spread. Both Landfall and Wreath make action to stop this from happening - Landfall enlisting the services of Prince Robot IV, a high-ranking dignitary and Landfall war hero of the android variety, while Wreath turns to both The Stalk, a female spider-bodied bounty hunter, and the Will, an equally cold-blooded mercenary, to track the fugitive pair down. Even with the emergence of a common goal, the agents on either side are in no mood to help the other - and they may well end up killing each other long before they even get close to the targets they both want silenced.
Meanwhile the only thing that Alana and Marko want is freedom from the clutches of their assailants and the war itself, so they can think about starting their family and bringing up their kid. Their own path in Saga Book One is essentially that of one desperate escape after the next - with the range of dangers facing them involving more than the various agents pursuing them. There are many moments in this series that make the whole thing feel like a very long chase sequence; our protagonists hop from one planet to the next, narrowly avoiding another deadly situation, while the antagonists run into numerous obstacles to stay one step behind - whether that be each other, or their own personal problems. Until this volume reaches its climax and a shift in tone occurs, it’s a noticeable and repetitive trait - any lesser-produced comic series would have been derided for using such an elementary plot device. But Saga does have one major strength that turns this flaw into a minor quibble - from the perspective of pure creativity, it happens to be one of the most imaginative works of graphic fiction produced in recent times.
Saga’s artwork - as the series’ fans already know - is incredible. It comes from the efforts of Fiona Staples, Saga’s sole artistic contributor, and she has brought its world to life in impeccable fashion. The technicalities of the series’ look is one thing - always clean, always ultra-detailed, and always beautifully coloured - but it is Staples’ ability to realistically accentuate the themes she’s been given to work with that truly makes this comic’s look one of a kind. After all, Saga is explicitly a mature sci-fi fantasy adventure in an alien universe. It opens with one of its main characters giving birth. It has more than a few detailed depictions of nudity, sex and violence. Its characters have to face a full gamut of challenges just to stay alive - the horrific and the grotesque, the emotional and the human. It also has to make its magical fantasy elements look, well, magical (giant trees for rocket ships, anyone?). And, above all else, it has to sufficiently provide a menagerie of weird and wonderful creatures that sci-fi epics demand. It’s an almost contradictory array of visual requirements to meet, but Saga manages to meet them all. It is frequently vivid, repeatedly surreal, and even disturbing when it has be. There are definitely images from this comic’s universe that will stick with you whether you want them to or not. And yet, every panel retains an element of emotional authenticity - even if the book cover comes with a provocative image of a horned newborn suckling from a female breast, there is nothing about Saga’s visuals that feel exaggerated or like they’ve been inserted for shock purposes. They evoke drama exactly when they need to, they evoke wonder exactly when they need to, they evoke discomfort exactly when they need to. It’s an approach shared by a lot of similarly acclaimed illustrated works, and Saga manages to pull it off almost effortlessly.
Then there is the manner of Saga’s writing. Even if this initial act doesn’t do much to change the motives or the personalities of its characters, it is nonetheless pleasing just how strongly defined each of the individuals drawn into this space epic are. The dialogue is largely witty, incredibly funny and stimulating. Best of all, it is genuinely unique across each of Saga’s players, lending each of them a distinct voice. This is a vital component in Saga’s repertoire - not just to make its characters interesting, but also to make its personal moments all the more impactful. Alana, being forced to face up to this fugitive situation along with her responsibilities as a new mother, is initially tenacious in the protection of baby Hazel, her sharp tongue used both as a weapon and a shield to hide her fear in this dangerous, uncertain new reality she and Marko find themselves in. Marko meanwhile, though still pretty bad-ass with whatever weapon he has to hand, is a markedly calmer, sensitive individual who’d much rather avoid unnecessary violence, if only to keep their scenario from becoming even more complicated. They’re definitely a couple whose opposites attract, but when they come together to talk about the family they one day hope to safely raise, there’s a real sense of a bond between them. It’s hard to describe from a review, but most of this pair’s interactions with each other portray a recognizable sense of tenderness for anyone who’s found love between a rock and a hard place. It is, after all, an abundance of human qualities that fictional characters require in order to be likeable. That is definitely the case here with Saga’s main pair.
And that’s just the mushy stuff - Alana and Marko eventually find shelter with Marko’s parents (complete with the war-influenced tensions that come with such a reunion), while Prince Robot IV’s ruthless pursuit of the pair begins to reveal darker - even carnal - elements about his recent past on the battlefield. On the other side of things, the brilliantly-named The Will - complete with his awesome feline companion, the Lying Cat, a creature blessed with truth-detecting abilities - gets his moments to show himself as a rogue with a heart while also having to battle the personal demons that plague both his past and present. And even then, we’re still yet to get to certain people from Marko’s own past - namely an ex-fiancee by the name of Gwendolyn whose every bit as tough and ass-kicking as anybody else in this crowd. Her arrival marks the end of this hardcover book’s opening half, when it already might seem that the cast is fleshed out enough. It’d be very easy to feel overwhelmed by just how breathlessly thick and fast these new figures and story arcs continue to appear in this already-tangled web, but perhaps because the main plot thread itself is fairly uncomplicated in its mechanics, Saga is able to keep this melting pot from boiling over, and keep every new character debut intriguing enough to keep its narrative flowing compulsively.
It is, however, this overt focus on maintaining an ever-growing cast that reveals Saga’s current biggest flaw - it spends so much time individually profiling them that we never see its universe as a collective whole. We know that there’s a big war, that it’s being fought by two sides, and that both sides hate each other with impossible passion. But we never get an insight into how the war started, or who is even calling the shots at the very top for either of them. Without this information, we only get the viewpoint of what is essentially a small cat ‘n mouse game within a conflict that Saga continuously insists is Happening and is Huge, but never actually shows us on that level. It’s irritating, because with its characters constantly moving around from one exotic location to the next, Saga is definitely trying to show off the magnitude of its setting in a way that most adventures of its scale commonly use. But without providing the extra bits of detail that are necessary in building a world such as this, the immersion that Saga is trying to create feels light. As tense and as dramatic as its flashpoints feel, and as consistently audacious as its sights are, its universe lacks a bigger picture, and feels ambiguous and shallow as a result.
There’s another glaring problem in this opening volume too - the development of its plot, shallow as it is, still suffers the odd brain fart. There are moments when certain characters act outside of their expected nature, or manage to achieve feats that are remarkably far-fetched, even for a setting as creative as this one (case in point - one character gets blasted at close range in the knee-cap, but is then seen standing up mere pages later). Such flaws becoming apparent might just be the result of these opening issues being parseable as a back-to-back compilation instead of a periodically released serial - the latter being a format where plot holes and fleeting ideas can be forgiven - but as a collective, they still add up to one inconsistency too many. For a saga to be cohesive, it needs to be rationally persistent with both its world and character definitions. If your main character is storming off from a confrontation with her boyfriend’s mother over their path to freedom one second, and then offering her boyfriend a blow job the next (even if it is a conversation written with comedy solely in mind), you’re going to give your readers an involuntarily-raised eyebrow or two, no matter how you present it.
Still, Saga’s early chapters are a lot of fun. They have some brilliant characters in the making, they definitely capture the space opera fantasy feel they’re aiming for, and above all, they are exquisitely drawn. By no means do they add up to perfection though, and in my not-so-humble opinion, this series doesn’t deserve the hyperbole surrounding it just yet (no matter what Wikipedia or other sources might tell you, this is NOT ‘Star Wars meets Game of Thrones’). But it is still very engaging, incredibly grown-up and both mentally and visually provocative. It’s exactly the kind of comic series that those adults still with a world or two inside their own heads will devour with glee. If you’re that way inclined, chances are you’ll find Saga: Book One worthwhile consumption too.